Tag Archives: Burma

World traveler, historic preserver

July 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Sixty-Plus.

Susan Bray has never been one to shy away from attention. She built her life around standing out.

As a blonde, long-haired “hippie chick” in the 1970s, Bray stood out in some Asian and Middle-Eastern countries that had never welcomed a white woman traveling solo.

Her adventures started after she left Nebraska and moved to Honolulu to live with her brother after college. A few years later, Bray married a physicist. They eventually relocated to Guam—“the hottest place on God’s green earth,” according to Bray. And she would know.

The travel bug bit hard soon after the couple divorced. She’s visited more than 50 countries in her 70 years of life. Most of her 50 countries came in a span of five years during three different trips.

She saw the cage in Titian where she believes Amelia Earhart was held captive by the Japanese until her death. She was goosed by a camel in Afghanistan. And she was horned in the rear by a water buffalo in Nepal.

Bray most recalls the kindness of the people in Nepal. It’s her favorite country. While there, she rented a motorcycle and headed toward Mount Everest—at least, until it broke down. She says, “It wasn’t a Harley, I’ll tell you.” But even out in the remote rice paddies, she quickly found help.

She went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is the second most beautiful work of architecture she’s ever seen. The most stunning edifice Bray saw was the Golden Pagoda in Burma (now Myanmar). “It was like eight to 10 stories high, and it had a spiral staircase like the Guggenheim.” In an excited whisper, she then adds, “It was all plated gold. Just startling when you see it.”

Traveling cost a lot. She came home to her mother in Omaha in 1976 with about 45 cents to her name. Thankfully, pay phones only cost a dime at the time.

Subconsciously, Bray may have been studying art and architecture all over the world because she knew that’s where her heart was. Her passion led her to city planning in Omaha, which evolved into
historic preservation.

Soon she grew restless and weary of Midwestern winters. Bray bought a house in Hawaii and lived there until her mother became ill. To be closer to her, she moved to La Jolla, Calif.

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Quickly getting involved in historic preservation once again, “I ended up being in charge of the restoration of downtown San Diego,” Bray says. “I did an area called the Gaslamp Quarter. It was all old buildings I did…96 of them.”

In her living room is a newspaper clipping from the San Diego Tribune, the headline of which reads, “Gunslinger of the Gaslamp: Susan Bray is the guardian of downtown’s historical integrity—like her or not.”

She looks at the photo in the clipping and says, “The guys working on this building gave me a pink construction hat. So cute.”

Reflecting on Gaslamp, Bray says, “That’s my biggest contribution. I changed the footprint of a city. And that’s forever.”

Bray thinks a lot about legacies because she’s been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s called Orthostatic Hypotension. It’s terminal. This news came after she already survived lymphoma and breast cancer.

Her doctor in California recommended that she live near her burial site. So, six years ago, she threw all her photos, a small red chair, and a blue stool in her car to come back to Omaha.

Although she always appreciated the sense of community here, she felt sad to find so many of her good friends had already passed away or moved. She’s grateful for the new friends she has made and some friends from Westide High School she’s reconnected with.

Bray does not know the meaning of the term stranger. “I dialed the wrong number the other night in San Diego, and I ended up talking to a 79-year-old woman for an hour,” she says.

Even sales calls get a taste of her gusto. “My daily joy is making people laugh,” she says. “I think that’s why God put me on this earth.”

So even though Bray has to “fill a bathtub to feel at home” so far from the ocean, she’s made a home again in Omaha. Inside her apartment, Bray’s parakeet, Big Boy, sings in the background. Combine that with the vintage blond art deco floors—“I would only ever live in a historic property”—it could almost be a tropical getaway.

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Nicole 
Carrillo

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March 2015 HerFamily.

Nicole Carrillo says she can make friends anywhere. Even at the airport.

Case in point: On a chilly night in November, Nicole stood with her fellow Thrive Club members at Eppley Airfield holding colorful signs. Nicole’s read “WELCOME TO OMAHA!” with the O’s shaped like hearts. Moments later, wild applause, laughter, and some tears erupted from the relatives, students, and coaches gathered for this moment.

Nicole’s soon-to-be-new friends were a refugee family just arriving from Burma. Marisol, Nicole’s mother and one of the sponsors of Thrive, was overwhelmed as tears flooded her eyes. “It was life- changing,” Marisol recalls.

Members of the Thrive Club, along with Lutheran Family Services, provided a cozy home environment for the immigrant family in an apartment volunteer’s chocked full of groceries, clothes, and furniture.

Nicole, a junior at Northwest High School, had filled out a grant to present to her principal, Thomas Lee, to do something for a family that would be lost in a foreign world.

Emigrating is hard, scary, often emotionally draining. Nicole’s empathy stems from hearing the story of her parents. Marisol, a native of Mexico, left for the United States in her teens to pursue a cosmetics license. It was difficult, she says, but she argues she had it easier than her husband Joel, who she would later meet in English classes.

Joel started his first job in the “worst town you can think of”—Aguascalientes, Mexico. He loaded heavy bricks into trucks and, along with 15 or so other boys, sold them house-to-house. He was five at the time. Joel came to the United States when he was 15. Later, he worked 60 to 70 hours a week while attending college classes at night, sometimes even taking a course during his lunch hour.

Nicole sees what her parents had to go through—all their hard work. So she strives to be the best. As a 4.0 student, Nicole is currently right behind her best friend for the top spot on the GPA ladder. “It has been a long steady fight,” she says, “but it’s all in good fun.” However, like most high achievers, Nicole gets upset if she receives a B on a test or paper, but her parents do not.

“My parents are like ‘you are doing the best you can,’” Nicole says resting her hand on her cheek during a recent interview.. “Love them.”

Nicole says attending Northwest was one the best decisions she has ever made. “She is one of the best ambassadors for the school,” Lee says. Nicole is active in all aspects of the school, including student council, National Honor Society, and choir. She has won numerous community service awards and was one of five in the nation to be selected for the National Youth Advisory Council.

Nicole is now eager to show the Burmese family all the “simple things we take for granted” around Omaha—“like the mall and zoo,” she says.

“Nicole has the heart to help…to make a better world,” her mother says proudly.

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Family Success Story: 
The Ner Clay & Paw Tha Family

November 4, 2013 by

Ner Clay and Paw Tha are a humble couple with a story that is hard for most of us to imagine. They have lived three different lives—the first in Burma, their homeland; the second in the refugee camps of Thailand; and now their third in Omaha.

Burma—now called Myanmar by military rule, but forever known as Burma to its refugees—lies south of China on the Bay of Bengal. Home to a number of ethnic groups, the Karen (kuh-REHN) people make up about one third of the country’s population. The Karen are quiet, respectful, and industrious. Family life is extremely important. Marriages are strong and function as a partnership of equals. The parenting style is firm but loving, and children of every age are respectful and obedient. Traditionally, Karen do not have family names; each person is seen as an individual.

The Karen suffered political and religious oppression in their homeland for many decades. But it became much worse in the 1970s and ’80s when a violent new military régime took over the government. A systematic genocide began, driving the Karen people into the forest while government soldiers burned their villages. The only way to stay alive was to flee to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand, where the families of Ner Clay and Paw Tha found safety.

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You might think of a refugee camp as offering temporary quarters. But history tells us the average stay for people in refugee camps worldwide is 15 years. Paw Tha lived 11 years in the camps. Ner Clay spent 30 years there.

“Life in the refugee camps was difficult,” says Ner Clay. “We were safe inside the fences, but we could hear enemy gunfire in the hills. People were crowded and lived in poor conditions. Monsoons washed away the dirt walls of our shelters, and we had to rebuild them after the rainy season. People could not leave the camp borders, and there was no way to earn a decent wage to a better life. When the fighting grew closer, the entire camp—thousands of people—had to move farther into Thailand.”

Faith and education are important values of the Karen culture, so churches and schools were organized. Ner Clay learned to speak English as a boy. As an adult, he served as a minister and helped charities organize services to the residents of the camp. Paw Tha arrived as a teenager who had already studied languages, history, and science. She taught English to first graders. Eventually, the couple found each other and were married. All three daughters—Victoria, now age 12, Gloria, 10, and Julia, 7—were born in the camp.

In 2008, Ner Clay and Paw Tha and their daughters were granted visas to travel to the United States. They were first placed in St. Paul, Minn., where they lived for three months. The couple’s English language skills positioned them in high demand. Then Ner Clay was asked to move his family to Omaha, where there was a need for a religious and cultural leader among the new Karen arrivals.

Ner Clay and Paw Tha moved their family into an apartment complex in North Omaha, and the Karen families followed. Day after day, they labored to settle their own family and jobs while helping dozens of new refugee families translate their mail, make appointments, drive for errands, and function in an all-English world.

Ner Clay became associate pastor of the Karen Christian Revival Church with a growing parish of more than 400 families. In addition to spiritual support and recreational activities, the church became a resource center for the community, offering resettlement assistance, clothing and household items, job-seeking advice, and educational programs that help the families adjust to life in Omaha.

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Paw Tha is now an interpreter at Franklin Elementary School, and their daughters attend Springville Elementary School, both of which are in the Omaha Public Schools district. In a comfortable home in northwest Omaha, they continue to provide assistance to established and new refugees—explaining insurance policies, legal documents, housing requirements, and notes from the children’s schools. They feel very lucky to be in a position to help others succeed, and often repeat their own personal slogan: “We are blessed to be a blessing.”

Still, Paw Tha is concerned about some of the darker aspects of American culture. “In the camps, there is nothing to do, so there are many eyes on the children. Here, the children have so much more freedom and are exposed to many temptations,” she says. “I worry that they will lose respect for the ways of our culture.”

“Except for a few setbacks, things have turned out pretty much the way we hoped,” Ner Clay says. “Our people are finding success. They have bought more than 300 homes and have started new businesses—grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, and auto repair. We came here for freedom and citizenship, and we want to contribute to this great country. Anything is possible in America!”

This September, Ner Clay and Paw Tha became U.S. citizens, which granted automatic citizenship to their daughters. The couple agrees: “We hope our daughters will grab whatever opportunity they get in America.”